Early on in the 1995 Bollywood film Karan Arjun, with a single streak of blood on her face, a bereaved mother tells a group of most villainous men that her sons, who have been killed so cruelly by them, will resurrect for revenge. “Mere Karan-Arjun aayenge,” she tells them. My Karan and Arjun will come (back). It’s an iconic line that has ingrained itself in the cultural lexicon of the Hindi-speaking population in India, but within the film, its sole purpose is quite simple: to reassure the audience that justice will be done. It’s almost like a prophecy that tells the viewers to believe in the power of reincarnation, to wait for the second avatars of the poor woman’s sons to seek revenge on her behalf.
It’s not reincarnation how David Mitchell writes it—with his sweeping, multiple time-dipping style of narration. In his world, best exemplified in Cloud Atlas, a soul takes many births, faces many trials and tribulations, to drive the plot forward. But, in Bollywood, the plot is driven by a set of binary concepts: wrong and right, weak and powerful, past and present. The gap between the death of a past character and the birth of the present one draws a line in time, slicing the narration into two separate sections – before reincarnation and after reincarnation. The characters from before are (largely) oppressed or gullible, and the ones from the time afterwards are (usually) influential or strong. It’s the case with every rebirth plot in Bollywood—in Kudrat and Madhumati, for example, two lovers are born into better circumstances and given happier endings; and in Om Shanti Om, the protagonist is seen to be more affluent, having fulfilled his past-self’s dream. It is a rule of sorts, therefore, that all downtrodden characters will be reborn in better circumstances.
Before the reincarnation, in Karan Arjun, the characters in question are cheerful and childlike young men. They are good, ideal sons, whose lives revolve around their mother, Durga, named after a Hindu goddess. The brothers themselves share their names with two pivotal half-siblings in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, which rivals The Lord of the Rings in a literary sense. But they are weak in the face of an attack, unable to fight back when cornered by an evil horde on horseback, and die gruesome deaths in the process.
The introductions to the reincarnated sons as grown-ups are quick to address this issue—with Karan, now Ajay, winning an underground fight and Arjun, now Vijay, shooting targets while riding a horse. Relying on physical strength alone, the second avatars, born to separate parents in this life, have a distinct upper hand over their past selves. Mentally, too, they are much sharper.
In their earlier life, they might have taken things at face value, but now they are hesitant to believe anything they are told. Ajay, especially, questions the authenticity of their unusual circumstances and agrees to seek revenge only when he is fully convinced of the fact. They are also more mature and sombre, and realize that a well-laid-out plan will be required to defeat the villains. They know that just the two of them won’t be enough, and they will require back-up. For that, they utilize people from both their current and past lives to create a great force, larger than the one Karan and Arjun had faced in their dying moments, to help kill the wrongdoers one by one.
In literary terms, the characters from before (Karan and Arjun) are like the first draft of a short story or novel, and the ones from the time after (Ajay and Vijay) are fully-fleshed-out individuals who have much more complex personalities. Where the brothers were soft and saccharine-sweet, Ajay and Vijay are rugged and resilient—the one constant between them is their looks.
For the sake of continuity and to ensure that the audience keeps the past injustice in mind, the same actor is used to play both roles. It also helps to set up a moment of instant recognition, when the second avatar either comes across a painting/photo of his past-self or meets someone who’s aware of his former life’s misfortune. Connected to this is the inheritance of memories. It may be that incidents of the former life plague a character in the present day, or some force pulls him towards a person, building, or place integral to the past-self’s life, only for it all to lead to a moment of extraordinary revelation and realization that he must take on the unfulfilled duties from his previous birth.
In Karan Arjun, flashbacks of Ajay and Vijay’s previous lives haunt the two from an early age. But it’s only later, when Vijay is an adult that he comes upon the village where his past self used to live. He travels there on an unrelated note, but keeps getting a sense of déjà vu wherever he goes. He even meets people who recognize his previous avatar, coming across his “mother,” too. And it’s with her help that he’s able to produce proof of the reincarnation, in the form of a photo of Karan and Arjun she had held on to, and explain the truth behind their mysterious flashbacks to Ajay. Of the two, initially, it’s Vijay who is completely convinced that he needs to take on the responsibilities of the past.
This aspect of the second avatar’s driving force coincides with the Hindu philosophies of rebirth and karma, and plays into the belief that any unfinished business from a previous birth finds its way into completion in the next. As an idea, it’s an ever-present part of Indian society—in times of terrible tragedy, a passing remark might be made that the source of the negativity is an earlier life; and when faced with the tremendous joy of an accomplishment, the achievement may be considered to be the fulfillment of a dream carried across births. Even so, it all depends on the individual—on how seriously he or she considers the veracity of it.
The principal characters in the aforementioned films, obviously, accept it as a fact that unfinished business and injustice from a previous life will be avenged. And that is why the mother from Karan Arjun can say with the utmost confidence that her “sons” will return, and that justice will be done, even if it must wait for reincarnation and a second chance.
Srijani Ganguly is a former journalist with a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Limerick. Her short stories have been published in The Honest Ulsterman, Silver Apples Magazine, Fairlight Books, and other magazines. She is a Contributing Editor at Vestal Review, a Features Editor at Talking Writing, and a reader for the Scottish publishing house Sandstone Press. She currently resides in Dublin. Her twitter handle is @gigiganguly